30 December 2005

Uno, Deux ...

[posted by Amy]

This evening ended with the most cutthroat game of Uno I have ever played. All I can say is that it's a good thing that Beanie can't hear yet ... there were a lot of inappropriate words in more than one language used this evening!

We ate at the famous Les Deux Magots (the two ugly men, not the two maggots) today. I took a picture of the statues that give the café its name:

Personally, I don't think they are that ugly! The Americans that came in there were, though. (Lots of dumb tourists whining about the prices and the fact that they couldn't carry in food from the street vendor outside.)

After that, we braved the snow and sleet on our way to the Musée Picasso. (It was a NASTY winter day today!) I didn't enjoy the museum as much as I expected - there are far more sketches in the current exhibit than paintings, and I prefer lots of color. I may just be "museumed out" after three days of art in a row, though.

I have the perfect cure for that, though ... SHOPPING! Tomorrow is girls' afternoon out for shopping. I doubt I'll have a report tomorrow night, since it's also New Year's Eve and we'll be out having fun! Alas, there isn't anything going on in the city, so it looks like we're just going to a party hosted by our new friends, Doug and Stephanie. So...

Happy New Year, everyone!!

29 December 2005

Sex and (the Butte of) the City

[posted by Amy]

More sightseeing pictures from today. Joe, Kate and I headed up to the 18th to see Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, and the Dali museum.

Joe and Kate, enjoying the view from Montmartre, halfway up to Sacre Coeur.

The oldest street in Montmartre, on a cold December day.

Another oops with the English language. This one is at the Dali Museum. I don't even want to think about how you disturd! (This is a typo - the other signs said "Sorry for the disturb!")

A sculpture that includes one of Dali's famous melting clocks. Overall, the Dali museum was NOT worth the entry fee. (Adults are charged 10 euros, which is more than the Louvre!)

We originally intended to take the full walking tour of Montmartre, as outlined by Rick Steves in his book on Paris. Once we got to the bust of Dalida (the busty woman who "brought disco to Paris"), we got bored and headed on to the Boulevard de Clichy. At this point, I took the liberty of calling it the Rick James tour instead. (Wouldn't you like to take a tour recommended by Rick James, you superfreak?)

Once we got down to the Boulevard de Clichy, Joe made sure to snap pictures of Pig Alley (Pigalle). Why? Other than the giggle factor regarding the neon sex signs, they were simply following a recommendation from Grandpa Weber. You see, Grandpa told them that a friend of his said, "If you ever go to Paris, be sure to go to Pig Alley." Grandpa had no idea what Pig Alley was, so he made sure to have them go and check. Here's what they found:

Grandpa oughta get a good kick out of this! (He told Joe to take his pregnant wife to a sex district!)

28 December 2005

Pictures from "Da Loover"

[posted by Amy]

It's just after midnight here, so I'm going to post a few photos instead of writing anything lengthy.

Forgot to post this picture yesterday - it's the staircase going down on the way out of the Arc de Triomphe. Spiral, of course!

We spent the afternoon at the Louvre today (fondly pronounced Loo-ver, like Hoover, to indicate our hick heritage). Here is the Venus de Milo, one of the "must sees" on everyone's tour.

A particularly lovely ceiling in one of the many rooms of the Louvre. Remember, kids, this used to be someone's home/palace.

The Winged Victory, which Rick Steves described as capable of "winning a wet t-shirt contest" or something equally crass like that. Her garments are rather clingy, I suppose...

A chandelier in the apartment of Napoléon III. This set of rooms was a lovely little find, thanks to Kate's curiosity. We enjoyed this part of the tour a lot, especially since there were far fewer people around this part.

A nifty looking - albeit impractical - chair in Napoléon III's sitting room.

We also saw the Mona Lisa, of course, but they don't allow photography in that room. (They just renovated, so if you have a picture of her, don't worry. You used to be allowed to take pictures of her without a flash.) The newly renovated room follows a common rule throughout the Louvre that didn't exist in 1990, in that they now forbid taking photos in certain rooms. No big deal, though. We got to see them!

27 December 2005

We're going on tour again!

[posted by Amy]

New guests bring more sightseeing fun! Our friends Joe and Kate (and "Beanie," their baby-in-progress) are here for two weeks to see Paris, so I'll get to put up a lot of tourist sight pictures for a bit. Poor Joe, Kate and Beanie had a long and convoluted trip to Paris, thanks to poor service on the part of American Airlines in Indianapolis. But, after three flights (including a stop in London-Heathrow), they arrived safe and sound yesterday afternoon.

Today, Joe, Kate, Beanie and I started out at the Opéra Garnier, which is the very ornate opera house in the middle of Paris. (Colin stayed home to be responsible and do work.) I have to say, I'm a bit surprised that it doesn't make more of the "top 10" lists in Paris and France guidebooks. It's just stunning, both inside and out. We opted to make up our own tour instead of taking a guided one, since we knew what to look for and were feeling independent.

For me, the most interesting thing about this opera house is that it was the inspiration for Phantom of the Opera. This was my obsession-of-choice in high school (everyone had their favorite Andrew Lloyd Weber production in high school, usually Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, or Phantom). Apparently, there really is a lake under the opera house because the Seine backs up underneath it. You don't get to see that, though, which is probably for the best. (Joe speculated that it's probably not the dreamy, candlelit, foggy scene that we all love, but more likely a rat-infested, stinky mess.) We did, however, see the door to box five, as well as the infamous chandelier. (The chandelier never actually fell and killed anyone, but one of its counterweights did.) Box five wasn't open for viewing (after all, it must remain empty for the phantom, right?), but we were able to look through one of the other boxes to see the main floor. My picture of the chandelier didn't turn out, but I did get the door to box five (pictured at the left).

After thoroughly exploring the opulent opera house, we headed down to the Place de la Concorde to see the Obelisk and the temporary ferris wheel that has been set up in the Tuileries. By this point, it was snowing quite a bit, so we decided that going up in a ferris wheel wasn't the best use of our remaining body heat. Instead, we walked up the Champs-Elysées and had a late lunch in a very Americanized café. Joe, Kate and Beanie had their first croque-monsieurs (after all, nothing says Paris like overpriced hot ham and cheese sandwiches).

We finished up the day at the Arc de Triomphe, where Rachel joined us for the climb. This is still one of my favorite places to view Paris, even though there were a lot more people there today. Also, it started to snow again, so we were slipping and sliding all over the place. The nice part was that the sun was going down, so the lights on the Champs-Elysées were turned on. Between that and the snow and clouds, we had a gorgeous view. The image is still frozen in my mind ... but I think that a little bit more time in front of the heater should fix that. (Seriously, it was COLD up there!!)

I shot a poor video of the Eiffel Tower while we were up there. I posted it on Youtube, where it promptly turned on its side. (Not sure why! If you want to see it the right way, let me know and I can e-mail it to you.) Plus, I decided to check my watch to see what hour it was "sparkling" for, and the picture goes all wacky at that point. I was going to re-film it, but my batteries died. So, despite much adversity, you can see what the tower looks like when the strobe lights go off. (The link to my Youtube sight is in the sidebar on the right.) You can't tell in this picture, but the tower is sparkling behind Joe and Kate.

Anyway, we're headed to the Cameronaise restaurant tonight with Muriel. (Her family is originally from Cameroon, so she's going to give us her opinion on the food.) We've been wanting to go there for a while. I have no idea what to expect, except that when Colin looked up the cuisine on Wikipedia, it mentioned that giant rats are delicacies. Grimace if you want, but if I can eat entrails, I can certainly eat a little bit of rodentia.

26 December 2005

French Television, part 2

[posted by Colin]

Last week I shared my opinions on the (low) quality of French television. Today, I'll share with you the brightest spot that Amy and I have found on TV here, a show called "A Prendre ou à Laisser" [Take It or Leave It]. The premise is simple and is explained in the opening credits: 22 boxes, 22 prizes, 22 candidates representing the 22 regions of France. One candidate is chosen every evening to play the game. At the end of the show, that person wins the prize in his or her box. Simple, right?

The game is played like this. The 22 prizes range in value from 1 centime to 500,000 euros. Eighteen are cash prizes, three are white-elephant prizes (one might also call them booby prizes), and one is a "Joker." At the beginning of the show, the 22 people on stage are asked a question that goes something like this: "The inhabitants of Paris are called: a) Parisians, b) Parisites, or c) snobs." The question is often about an obscure village in rural France, or some other trivial minutiae from French history. This, of course, adds a little drama—will everyone get the right answer? Often most of them do, but I have seen a question that stumped all but seven contestants. However, this little trivia question is crucial because 1) it determines the value of the joker (# of correct responses times 10,000 euros) and 2) it selects the player for the day, the first person who answered the question correctly.

Once the player du jour is selected, a video montage begins, giving the person's bio and showing photos from his or her childhood. After the video, the contestant leaves the row of tables holding the boxes and other candidates. He or she does a little turn on the catwalk (yeah on the catwalk, on the catwalk yeah), usually to some pop song with an appropriate tub-thumping bass line. Finally, he or she approaches the round table at center stage and greets the host, Arthur. If the player is a guy, Arthur will usually shake his hand; if it's a girl, he will meet her halfway, pick her up, and carry her over to her chair for the evening, offering a little kiss as he does so.

At this point, we meet the stars of the show. Arthur is a French comedian and TV host (on the left). Jean-Louis is a huissier de justice (or, as Amy prefers, "the hussy of justice"), which is a type of lawyer who doesn't do any trial work (perhaps someone else can explain it in more detail?). Sadly, I can't find a picture of this slightly pudgy and unnaturally tanned grey-haired man who is always smiling broadly and is accompanied by his wife, also unnaturally tanned, pleasantly plump, and attired in the most horrific outfits you can imagine (but which always seem to coordinate with Jean-Louis's suit).

Finally, it's time to begin playing the game. The contestant eliminates the other candidates' boxes one-by-one, trying to determine which prize is in his or her box. From time to time, the banker—a mysterious and apparently evil man who the audience never sees—calls to make an offer to the contestant, allowing him or her to either exchange his or her box with another candidate's box or to quit the game by accepting a specific sum of money. In a perfectly choreographed and melodramatic fashion, a generous monetary offer from the bank elicits cheers from the studio audience, while a bad offer (I've actually seen the bank offer 1 euro) draws hisses, whistles, and booes. The game ends when the contestant either takes the prize in his/her box or accepts a monetary offer from the bank. Whatever he or she wins is shared with a viewer of the show (French TV shows love offering phone numbers to call in for stuff like this).

Okay, by now you've probably realized that this is an incredibly lame game. Yet, what Amy and I love about it is the style of presentation. As with most of the game shows here, there are frequent music breaks—on this show, a candidate may sing or others may encourage someone to dance on the table. Roughly once every other week, the candidates get so wound up that they all climb up on the tables and dance. The show also offers corny theme shows from time to time, with the candidates dressed in outrageous outfits. Among the themese, "A Farmer's Christmas," "Astérix" (a popular cartoon here), "Gangster Night," and "Miss/Mr. A Prendre ou A Laisser" have all taken place since we've been watching.

The banter between Arthur and the candidates is great, too (and great practice for our aural comprehension). Arthur's antics are always good for a laugh, and would generally get him arrested for sexual harassment in the US. For example, about once a month he sees how quickly he can kiss all of the female contestants. On another occasion, he laid down on the table in front of two beautiful female contestants, lounging and ignoring the banker's calls (eventually Jean-Louis took his place at the phone); eventually someone brought out some grapes and the girls fed him like a Roman emperor. Yet another time, Arthur was teasing the evening's contestant, telling her that she was making the show too risqué and was threatening the morality of everyone in the audience. He grabbed a girl from the audience, threw her over his shoulder and ran her over to the exit of the studio; he continued doing this for a few minutes. Then, during the commerical break, he emptied an entire section of the audience.

Unfortunately, it's devastating when a contestant ends up winning one of the booby prizes—we've seen contestants win a feather, a boa, and a tutu. And when I say devastating, I mean an absolutely crushing, demoralizing, wind-out-of-your-sails kind of defeat. Almost every night people are crying on this show. One week, people had been crying so much that a box of Kleenex was added to Arthur's round table. And it's not just the women, either. A few nights ago, a very macho firefighter finished his episode with puffy red eyes, tear-streaked cheeks, and soaked sleeves on his sweater.

We're not entirely sure why the candidates cry so much, though Arthur plays a significant role in this. Not long ago, a girl was playing who planned to use the money she won to pay for her wedding. She had stuck it out all the way to the end, turning down every offer from the bank. Only two boxes remained, hers and one other; one contained 250,000 euros, the other a mere centime. The show was running ahead of schedule, so Arthur had to kill time. That's when he laid into her—"If your box has the 250,000 euros, you will have the most beautiful wedding ever, the wedding of your dreams, the wedding you've been fantasizing about since you were just a little girl. But...[long dramatic pause]...if your box has the centime, what will happen? You turned down an offer of 80,000 euros. What will your fiancé think? Will he support you? Will he still love you?" Ouch. The last one was just a low blow. She ended up winning the 250,000 euros, which brought the house down!

The music is worth talking about, too, since I'm a musicologist. It's mainly film scores and popular music. The film music is always over the top. When the contestant is faced with a tough choice, cue the Russian choir. When the contestant finds a big box (indicating that they cannot win that prize), cue the funeral march and the demonaic laugh of the banker. When the contestant finds a small prize, cue the Rocky theme. The show's producers also find out the contestant's favorite songs and have them all cued up to play at key moments, thus inducing more tears.

My favorite moment on the show, however, happened two weeks ago. A lovely young woman was playing that evening, and was having an incredible draw. Only two boxes remained, one containing 100,000 euros, the other with 500,000. The banker called to offer the girl an opportunity to exchange boxes. Arthur asked about the importance of the numbers on the boxes. Box #20, her box, was the lucky one, since her mom's birthday was on the 20th; box 15, the other candidate's box, meant nothing to her. "So, the choice before you is: do you remain faithful to your mother, the woman who raised you and who loves you so much, or do you take this other box, which has had some mysterious attraction for you this evening? You've been offered an exchange. Do you take it or leave it?" Before she could answer, however, Arthur went to work. Still ignorant of the contents of the boxes, he walked slowly over to the other box. Placing his hand on it, he launched into a five-minute stalling tactic. He recounted her progress for the night, her incredible luck. Never had the show seen such an incredible draw. Never had somebody turned down an offer from the bank of 250,000 euros. "But," he continued, "you have remained faithful to your mother. Faithful to the woman who carried you in her womb for 9 months. Faithful to the woman who nursed you until you were big enough to eat. Faithful to the woman who raised you. Faithful to the woman who has held your head to her chest on so many difficult occasions." By now, the girl was a wreck, sobbing uncontrollably. But he wasn't done yet, "But was this the right choice? Has your mother's memory brought you 500,000 euros or has that memory betrayed you into losing that prize and the offer of 250,000 euros? If so, was it worth it to remain so faithful to your mother? Of course, she was the woman who carried you in her womb and nursed you and raised you and comforted you." After five minutes of this monologue, the girl was hysterical. Standing at the round table, she started pounding on the box and shouting, "Yes, yes, yes! I love my mother! I'll always be faithful to her, no matter what! I'll keep my box! I'll keep my mother! I'll keep it!"

The bad news: she only won 100,000 euros. The good news? She won 100,000 euros and her mom still loves her.

25 December 2005

Joyeux Noël à tous!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The first picture taken on our new web cam! Thanks, Santa Shields! :)

24 December 2005

Storming the Bastille for Christmas

Colin and I exchanged Christmas gifts today, since both related to this evening's trip to the opera. I got Colin a new coat and scarf, and he got me jewelry to wear with my opera dress. Just in case I actually need to say it, we were both quite pleased with our gifts to each other! (Don't we look cute?)

Once we were "all cleaned up," we headed off to the Opéra-Bastille to see L'Amour des trois oranges (The Love of Three Oranges), with music by Prokofiev. As near as we can tell, it was a full house tonight. We both thought the performance was excellent overall, though some of the dancing left a bit to be desired. (The choreography was fine, but the dancers were a bit of a mess, and one of the knife jugglers dropped his knives three times!) The singing was really great, as was the orchestra. Plus, it's hard to beat (much less find) an opera with a happy ending!

When we got up for intermission, I started to feel really uncomfortable in my dress because I was one of two people who actually wore a real evening gown. Yes, I had been warned in advance that there would be people wearing jeans, so I wasn't taken off guard. Still, I thought there would be a few more people who would have the sense to dress up to go to the opera in Paris! Fortunately, just when I was ready to slink off and hide in a corner, one of the ushers ran over and grabbed Colin by the arm. Once he confirmed that I was with him, the usher told him (in French), "It's always so beautiful to see a woman in an evening gown." Once I heard the usher say, "Très élégante, très élégante," I decided to straighten up my shoulders again and not worry about my ensemble insecurities.

I'm sure that a lot of people thought I was overdressed, but hey, at least someone besides my husband approved! Besides, if you can't dress up to go to the opera in Paris, what's left? I personally think that dressing up is a sign of respect to everyone involved in creating the show. These people spend countless hours rehearsing, not to mention the years of training they went through to get as good as they are in their craft (knife jugglers apparently excluded). The least you can do in return is pull out a pair of slacks and a tie. I don't care what anyone says, jeans are NOT dress pants.

Ah, I guess I was meant to live in the days when going to the opera was a big deal, and a place to see and be seen.

22 December 2005

A Childhood Dream Realized

Tomorrow night, Colin and I are headed off to see our first opera in Paris. As such, I wanted to do something a bit fancier with my hair. So, for the last few days, I've been searching for a curling iron to help with the styling process.

You wouldn't think that a curling iron would be a difficult item to find here. Heck, every backwoods Wal-Mart in the continental US has at least 5 different models from which to choose. Why would a western European nation be any different?

Answer: Because it's FRANCE.

When I finally found a curling iron that was the right size and not designed like a giant round brush, I had to buy a whole kit with multiple other attachments to get it. I suppose this kit is a good deal for people with long hair, a lot of free time on their hands, and the deep desire to look like a fashion runway victim. But, since I only meet one of the three requirements in that list (a lot of free time), I wasn't sure what I was going to do with the other attachments.

Fortunately, the solution came along with my shopping buddy, Rachel. She wanted to try the straightening iron on her lovely, long red hair. Of course, straighter hair didn't entertain us for more than a few minutes, so we decided to use the attachment that no woman should EVER use: the crimping iron.

Boys, I'm sure you don't know what this is (unless you have a sister who was a TRUE child of the 1980s). All I can say is that I dreamed of owning one when I was a kid. I can't explain why, but I thought crimped hair looked sooooo wicked awesome. My mother, however, did not agree and refused to let me purchase a crimping iron back in the day. (I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my mother profusely for her sound judgment.)

So, after several minutes of trial and error, I am pleased to give you the look that I always believed I was meant to have in 1987. I think I look a little bit like one of the Bangles, don't you? Or maybe a groupie for Flock of Seagulls...

More images of Christmas

Here are some more pictures of Christmas stuff around town. Enjoy!

The window of Lenôtre (the gourmet bakery).

A close-up of one of the Lenôtre bûches de Noël. This lovely little treat will set you back 65 euros!

The Christmas tree outside of Notre Dame Cathedral. This is, by far, the most beautiful Christmas tree that I have seen to date in Paris.

Rachel poses next to the Notre Dame Christmas tree to give some perspective on just how HUGE the tinsel is.

20 December 2005

Christmas/New Year's Decorations

Here are some photos of the holiday decorations in the 14th arrondissement, just to get you in the Christmas mood. Despite the fact that France is something like 90 percent Catholic, I have hardly seen any references to Christmas itself. The general wish is usually "Joyeuses Fêtes" ("Happy Holidays").

I was originally quite suprised by the lack of religious references and imagery, but now I think it's more to do with the fact that we're living in a big metropolitan area. I bet the smaller towns throughout the country have a lot more religious references. I'd be curious to hear from anyone living in other parts of France right now! If you have photos to share, let me know. I'd like to post them, too.

To the left, a flower shop. To the right, a jewelry store.
In the middle, the door to our apartment.

The jewelry store next to our apartment, from a different angle.

Lights over the rue d'Alésia, just up the street from us.
The middle oval in front says "Alésia en Fête" (it's not readable in this picture).

A very cute boulangerie/patisserie on the rue Daguerre.

A chocolaterie on the rue Daguerre.

A branch of Lenôtre, a really pricey but oh-SO-good boulangerie and patisserie. This is also just up the street from us, between our apartment and the rue d'Alésia.

One of the bazaars near our apartment.
I'm not sure if the circuslike feel is truly transmitted through this photo.

Street decorations at the corner of rue Daguerre and avenue du Maine.
The words in the center say "Joyeuses Fêtes."

Further down on the rue Daguerre, right where the main part of the pedestrian mall begins. If you walk through this passage, you'll hit avenue du Général Leclerc.

19 December 2005

I am my father's son...

This afternoon, I finally have the physical that will determine whether I'm healthy enough to have entered France. Yes, after 102 days in Paris, they are finally going to confirm whether or not I have the potential to start an epidemic of tuberculosis.

In preparation for the exam, I looked over my paperwork last night. Among the recent additions is a letter that needs to have four stamps on it, proving I've paid the immigration tax. As I reread the letter, I realized: "Hmmm...they recommend getting these stamps at a Trésor Public. Hope I can do that tomorrow morning and that it won't take too long." A quick check in the Pages Jaunes ("The Yellow Pages") confirmed that there were two Trésors Publics in our arrondissement and that at least one of them would be open on a Monday morning.

A Trésor Public is much like a county treasurer's office in the US. You go there to pay a variety of taxes and they handle all of the financial operations of the arrondissement. Since there's two of them in our arrondissement, you might assume that they're on opposite ends, to make things more convenient for everyone. We live in one of the larger arrondissements, after all, so that would make sense (the 14th has about 133,000 people living in a little more than 2 square miles). Mais non! The logic of the French bureaucracy strikes again! Not only are they distant from the most densely populated portion of the arrondissement, they are only one block apart. Looking out the windows, I think you can see one from the other.

Thankfully, they're only about 5 minutes away from our apartment on foot, so it was a nice walk on this dreary, damp, bone-chillingly cold morning. I arrived and, naturally, the building was under construction. But, they had a greeter at the door who was very friendly. I told him I was looking for the vente de timbres (the office that sells stamps) and he directed me to the first floor. I arrived there, found the correct office, and told the nice lady at the desk what I needed. She told me I was in the wrong office.

So, after taking the elevator up to the fifth floor, I found the other vente de timbres. There was nobody at the counter. I had a nice view of the entire office, however, and noticed that all of the desks except two faced directly away from the counter. The two desks that didn't face away from the window faced each other, perpindicular to the counter. I waited patiently as the woman at one of these desks finished her phone conversation (the other desk was, of course, empty). When the woman transferred the call to her colleague, I caught enough of her conversation to know that it was clearly the funniest request she had received in a whle. "Can you believe it, this woman missed paying her business's taxes on December 3 and wants a prolongation exceptionnelle!" Her guffaws clearly implied that nobody was getting any extra time for paying taxes today, no matter how unusual the situation. Ah...the power of the fonctionnaire!

After picking up the Christmas decoration that fell during her laughter, she asked me what I needed. After I told her I needed four stamps for my medical exam (OMI), she got a large piece of paper (B3, for those who know the European paper sizes) and a black marker to take the order. After asking everyone in the office what day it was, she began writing on the paper:

19 Décembre 2005
4 OMI x 55 euros =

Then she stopped.

Bear in mind that I come from a family with really strong math skills. By the time she asked me what the total was, I had already solved the problem in two different ways ("4x50=200 plus 4x5=20, so 220" and "55x2=110x2=220"). It used to drive me nuts when Dad would do this type of math game, but now I understand. I gave her the correct total, then she pulled out a calculator to check. Meanwhile, I continued to find new ways to solve the problem ("2x2=4x5=20x11=220," "2x5=10x2=20x11=220," "2x11=22x5=110x2=220," and so on). Finally, she had it and added 220 to the sheet of paper.

Then she asked how I wanted to pay for it. I noticed the credit card reader on the counter, so I said "carte bleue" and pulled out my card. Looking at my card and then at the paper, she began reciting, "quatre OMI à 55 euros sur carte bleue." But, she never quite got the pen to touch the paper to write in carte bleue at the end of the line. Finally, she looked at me and admitted—"Can you pay by check, I'm not very good at working the card reader?" I've worked retail, and I know that the credit card machines in the US are more complicated and less reliable than the card readers here. Which is really saying, any idiot should be able to figure out the machines here. Clearly I was not dealing with your run-of-the-mill idiot.

Being the nice guy that I am, however, I just pulled out my checkbook and started writing the check. Meanwhile, one of the woman's co-workers came over and started whispering loudly in her ear—"Did you just tell him we don't take cartes bleues? Why would you do that? You know we do! Now he has to go through all the trouble of writing a check!" I couldn't quite hear the woman's meek response.

Then, since I was paying by check, she asked to see a photo ID. As is standard practice, I pulled out my passport and set it on the counter between us, with the giant eagle and block letters stating "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" facing up. She flipped to the page with my picture. If you have a passport, take a look at that page. There is a message from the "Secratary of State of the United States of America" in three languages (English, French, and Spanish), an eagle holding the American flag, another set of big block letters with the country's name, a blank that identifies my nationality (spelling out the country's name), and above my picture are the giant block letters "USA." Anyhow, so the woman looks at my passport, confirms that I am who I say I am, than says: "Ah, vous êtes anglais?" Am I English?!? Not only did she fail to miss the overwhelming Americanness of my passport and my accent, but, correct me if I'm wrong, don't the English have exactly the same passports as the French now, thanks to the European Union?

I'm still not sure why she wrote down my order on a giant sheet of paper, though I'm pretty sure it's sitting in a recycing bin by now.

The woman at the counter then asked for someone to go fetch the stamps for me. With my wonderful view of the office, I noticed everyone hunch down just a little further over their desks, still looking away from the transaction happening at the counter. Finally, the woman disappeared around the corner for about 3 seconds, returning with my stamps (which you can see on the right, affixed to the appropriate letter).

The kicker is that, even though all the postage stamps here are self-adhesive, the stamps that prove you've paid your taxes are not. As if I haven't kissed enough government backside in my quest for a titre de séjour!


I just got back from the medical exam. For once a 1:30 appointment meant 1:30. The precision was actually a little frightening. 45 minutes later, I left with my titre de séjour. Now we just have 18 days until Amy gets hers...

18 December 2005

French Television, part 1

Let's talk about French television. Our apartment came with basic cable, including eight options:

1 TF1—formerly a state station, the station was privatized in 1987.
2 France2—a state station
3 France3—a state station
4 France4—a state station that seems to always be simulcast with France2
5 France5—a state station that is typically preempted by Arte
5 Arte—a state station that is jointly run by France and Germany
6 M6—a private station
7 Canal+—the original French private station (founded in 1984), which is only available to us some of the time

Although each station has its own character (M6 for example seems to be the poor-man's MTV-Europe, while Canal+ bears a resemblance to premier channels in the USA like HBO), there are some frightening generalizations that can be made out French TV.

First, about half of the broadcasts are dubbed shows from the US. Since arriving, I have seen at least a partial episode of the following programs (in alphabetical order): 24, Alias, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, Dallas, Days of our Lives, Desperate Housewives, The Family Guy, Friends, Law and Order, The Love Boat, Macgyver, My Wife and Kids, The Nanny, NCIS, NYPD Blue, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Scooby Doo, Sex and the City, The Simpsons, and The Young and the Restless. I think I got all of the ones I've seen...

Second, France has also fallen prey to the reality TV craze. Among our weekly choices this fall have been Star Academy (on the model of the British Pop Star, but predating American Idol), Le Tuteur (Star Academy for older kids, with less glitz and glamor), a Super-Nanny type of show, a brat-camp type of show, two or three makeover shows, and French versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The Weakest Link.

As you can imagine, so far, watching TV here is a lot like watching it at home. Except for one big difference. Thanks to the Académie Française absolutely everything is dubbed into French (except on Arte, thanks to the German participation). This is good for our French comprehension, but unfortunately there is often a lot lost in translation. For example, the entire joke of The Nanny was Fran Drescher's obnoxious voice, right? You wouldn't know it watching the French version: her voice is provided by a run-of-the-mill voice-over actress.

You might be thinking—"But France has one of the greatest cinematic traditions in the world! Surely they have created something original that's worth watching!" My response to that is easy. The French have two basic formats for original TV programming: panel discussions and game shows. I can't even begin to count how many panel discussion shows there are here. Imagine having Crossfire, The McNeill-Lehrer Hour, Larry King *and* The Viewon constantly, with a rotating panel of celebrities. Many of these shows are about the media itself. So, we watch celebrities as they watch clips from this week in TV. Then, they discuss the clips. Occasionally somebody even says something interesting. Only once have I seen a clip that was truly worth discussing—when a show on Canal+ broadcast the commercial made by MTV that was evidently banned by the US government. (Unforunately, I can no longer find a good source for it online; the commercial used images of the 9/11 terrorist attacks while suggesting that people should also unite against world hunger. Very poignant, very controversial.)

The game shows here offer some promise, though I'll talk about them more in an upcoming post entitled "French Television, part 2."

As in the US (and I assume everywhere else that people are reading this), programming is filled in with sports and movies. Unfortunately, since we only have basic, I'm not allowed to see nearly as many games as I'd like. I'm able to watch most of the Champions League games involving French teams, and all of the soccer and rugby matches of les Bleus (the national teams). I hope that next summer's World Cup offers plenty of options for me. The one big drawback to our sports broadcasts, however, is Canal+. This station is known primarily for showing sports events and movies. Unfortunately, we are unable to watch either on that station. Usually, about 2 minutes into the broadcast, the person at the switch finally gets around to turning the decoder back on. It's just long enough for me to get my hopes up that maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to watch Paris-St.-Germain annihilate Olympique-Marseille this time.

16 December 2005

Better with Butter?

Rachel and I went to see a movie a couple of days ago. I'm not sure what was better: temporarily losing myself in a Hollywood story, or eating a vat of popcorn and washing it down with a bottle of Coke. But, as is the case with most things I do here, this little excursion proved to be yet another learning experience in French culture.

Rachel and I both ordered popcorn, though she had the self-restraint not to get a carbonated beverage to accompany it. As I paid for my tasty treats, Rachel tasted the popcorn and immediately asked, "Est-ce que vous avez de beurre?" ("Do you have butter?" -- apologies, Rachel, if my indefinite article is wrong!) The woman at the counter gave us both a really odd look, and said no. So, the lesson of the day: the French don't butter popcorn.

The next afternoon, while chatting with Isabelle, I decided to verify this apparent new discovery. Not only did she confirm it, but she was rather disgusted to learn that we would put any butter on our popcorn, much less extra butter like so many people love to do. She was quick to point out that this would be very unhealthy and "très gras" (very greasy), which I confirmed with a contented, wistful sigh. Of course, I added, it's probably not real butter, but some version of margarine. I know, that doesn't improve my case in any way, but I wanted to be clear that we don't typically use real butter like they do exclusively around here.

Geez, it's no wonder more Americans than French are obese.

In far more exciting news, tonight is the big finale of Star Academy 5! Finally, we will learn the answer to the question on the tip of everyone's tongue: "Who is the most mediocre of mediocre French singers this year?" It's down to one boy, Jérémy, and one girl, Magalie. (In this version of American Idol, they have two semi-final shows to pick a girl winner and a boy winner, rather than letting either gender fill the top two spots.)

Everyone already knows the answer to this big question, though. Jérémy is going to win. It's a bit of a scandal that Magalie has gotten this far, since she's (unfortunately) referred to under everyone's breath as the "fat chick." She's NOT fat, but she's not super-skinny like all of the other female contestants. In a lot of respects, it's refreshing that the viewers of Star Ac' picked her in spite of her less-than-anorexic appearance.

Tonight, however, Magalie faces the heartthrob of the competition. There's just no way she'll be able to compete with teenage girl hormones. Plus, Jérémy was allowed to bring his dog on the show a couple of weeks ago, and how can you go wrong with a dog?

In the end, however, it doesn't really matter who wins. Neither one of them will be a success outside of France unless they have some kind of weird accident that gives them the ability to sing better than they already do. And, even if that happens, they need better songwriters than they'll find in France, so it's a lost cause. Nevertheless, they are guaranteed lots of radio time here, since the French government requires French music to be played 40% of the time on the airwaves.

Too bad we don't have some buttered popcorn to eat while we watch the grand showdown tonight...


As is the case with most things French, I was wrong about Star Ac's outcome tonight. Magali won by a healthy margin (57 percent of the vote), much to my surprise. Also adding to my surprise was the person selected to give the award: Mariah Carey. Yes, the same Mariah Carey that first split our eardrums back in 1990 with notes that make Didge cringe to think about them. Apparently, she thought that eating a tub of extra-buttery popcorn would help her repeat the French phrases being piped into her earpiece because she looked ... well, tubby. As for her French ... a parrot could have done a better job. Heck, I could have done a better job!

So, congrats to Magali, though I doubt sincerely that she is a fan of my humble little blog. She won Star Ac' and lost 30 to 40 pounds in the process. All in all, a good job for four months' work, n'est-ce pas?

14 December 2005

Going postal

I went back to the Post Office for the 10 millionth time today. OK, maybe it hasn't been quite that many trips, but I'm beginning to feel like I live there. Until Tuesday, however, I didn't really mind it. The people there were always courteous, patient, and helpful, and I always left feeling good about my limited French.

On Tuesday, however, I met a Parisite at La Poste. (By the way, that's what we're calling rude Parisians now, instead of Monsieur/Madame Rude.) This woman mumbled her words so quietly that I couldn't understand her sheerly because I couldn't hear her! I spent half of my time saying, "Repetez-vous, s.v.p." or "Encore une fois, s.v.p." which no doubt annoyed her as much as it annoyed me.

Anyway, on that particular day, I wanted one simple thing: fifty 90-centime stamps to use on letters to the US. (I was preparing to address Christmas cards, so I knew I'd need a lot.) The Mumbler quietly confirmed that I said 50, and then went to her accordian file of stamps to fill my order.

She only had thirteen 90-centime stamps.

No, she didn't go to the back room to look for more stamps. No, she didn't ask her colleagues sitting right next to her for more. She only had 13, and that's all I could have. I acquiesced, resigning myself to the fact that I would have to come back later. (As a side note, I tried to buy my stamps from the automatic dispenser instead, but it wouldn't take my credit card.) Fortunately, I managed to play dumb long enough to get The Mumbler to print postage for the letters that I had with me.

So, I went back to the post office today for more stamps. This was also a big trip because I had to mail our boxes of Christmas presents for the family. Fortunately, I had already bought pre-paid boxes during a previous trip, so all I really needed was confirmation that I filled out the forms correctly. After that, it was just a matter of getting the stamps that I didn't get on Tuesday.

There were three registers open, but I KNEW from the moment I got in the long line that I was going to get The Mumbler again. When I finally got to the counter, she was quick to make it abundantly clear that I was annoying her because I was missing the customs form (which I didn't know until that moment). No matter: I wasn't going anywhere. I just filled out the forms and handed them back to her.

Then, it was back to getting the stamps I needed. Instead of going to her accordian folder, she just started the tedious process of hand-printing stamps for my Christmas cards. (I had about 20 envelopes today!) Well, who was I to argue? It was her idea to print off the stamps instead of getting out pre-printed ones for me to use. But get this: while she going through this self-inflicted torture, she actually had the nerve to tell me, "Next time, you should buy your stamps in advance." ARGH!

When she was nearly finished with my Christmas cards, she put up her "window closed" sign. I chuckled at this and said, "Felicitations" (congratulations) in a rather sarcastic voice ... and I'll be damned if she didn't smile at me! I couldn't believe it. I finally gave up and fired off a smart remark, and that's what won her over.

As I left, I made sure to give her a sugary sweet "Je vous remercie" (a super-polite way of saying thank you). She wished me a good day in return. Go figure.

13 December 2005

WHOA! Major English Blunder...

HOLY SMOKES! I can't believe that I only noticed this for the first time today. I had just hopped a bus when one of the GIANT signs caught the corner of my eye. I returned with my camera this afternoon, not fully believing that I had actually read what I knew I had.

I've always cringed when I walked past this men's clothing store anyway. The best way to describe it is that it is a mix of all that is wrong from three different stores: it takes the insanely loud music of Abercrombie and Fitch and pipes it in over the Euro-trashy clothing that you would get if Hot Topic and Hollister were to merge.

Without further ado, this is the sign in question, just across the street from our apartment:

Yes, kids, that's the f-bomb. And it's the company's philosophy.

Once I had visual confirmation that this was actually what the sign said, I felt that it was my duty as an English-speaking citizen of the world to explain the extremely poor word choice to the good folks at Delaveine.

Then I got closer to the store.

No joke: every single item of clothing in the entire store has a six-inch-long pricetag with this slogan on it. Even if I were to explain it to them, what could they do? Cut the pricetag off of everything in their store? So, I judged this to be an unsaveable mess, and went on my merry way.

I guess you can file this under "things you wouldn't see in the US" ... or at the very least, "Things you wouldn't see in the US for very long because people would protest."

Postscript: The longer I thought about this, the more I have become convinced that A) the guys who came up with this ad campaign knew full-well what that word meant, and B) they were just hoping for attention.

Stupid dog.

Didge has a sweet tooth. The joke between Colin and I is that he "takes after his mother" i.e. me. Unfortunately, Didge's sweet tooth has gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. There was the time when, as a puppy, he ate an entire bag of Oreo cookies. Then, there was the time that he ate two Hershey bars as an adult.

Then, there was yesterday.

I left Didge alone for about four hours so that I could go Christmas shopping. At some point in that time period, Captain Acrobat found a way to get up on to a counter in my bedroom and grab a very large box of chocolates. He ate every last bite. You can see what I was left with.

Lucky for us, Didge has the constitution of a vacuum cleaner. After a several hour vigil, during which we watched for any signs of poisoning, we realized that he must not have ingested enough to cause himself a problem. In fact, he wasn't even a tiny bit more hyper from the extra sugar and caffeine.

Stupid dog.

10 December 2005

Do you want some cheese with that?

09 December 2005

Lights? Camera! Action!

In high school, my friends and I were fond of driving around our small town in search of the tackiest possible Christmas decorations. This is a game that you can start playing as early as October, since Halloween officially kicks off the Christmas season. By December, the decorations are everywhere and candidates for our competition abounded. The true contenders always subscribed to a "More is Better" theory by buying every plastic decoration that Wal-Mart makes and packing them into their lawns. Apparently, nothing quite says "Christmas" like a giant inflatable light-up Frosty the Snowman blowing precariously in the wind, threatening to knock the light-up sillouette of Santa into the homemade light-up wooden manger.

In the spirit of this game, I have always enjoyed going out and looking at Christmas decorations. This year, I have been eagerly anticipating the displays in Paris. My neighborhood has done well with lights and whatnot, but I was certain that there was more to be found out there.

Enter a well-timed e-mail from a member of the French faculty at Michigan. Just as I was starting to scout out places to go, our friend Helene sent us a message about the official 12-stop circle tour of lights around Paris called Paris Illumine Paris. Each stop on this tour has a professional designer in charge of the "concept." So, this afternoon, we picked out four stops on the route for a Friday night tour. We called friends and invited them along. We ate dinner early. Finally, we leashed up the dog, grabbed the camera, and went to the top of the tour in the 18th.

Here's what we found:

Stop #1: Rue du Poteau - Porte Montmarte: la voie lactée (The Milky Way)

Apparently, the Milky Way galaxy is actually just a series of sphere-shaped projectors, not unlike the kind that most second-rate DJs use at junior high dances. The entire extent of this display included projections of abstract patterns on buildings. No strings of lights, no Christmas trees, no decorations of any sort. "OK," we thought, "Maybe this just isn't a good one. The next one will be better."

Stop #2: Avenue de Saint Ouen: la rivière de lumière de Saint-Ouen (the river of lights of St. Ouen)

This stop was the best of the four. The picture isn't great (heck, most pictures of Christmas lights aren't), but the strands of white lights in the middle turned off and on to simulate a "flow" of water down the street. It was nice - nothing spectacular or astounding, but a clear attempt to have real, themed decorations.

Stop #3: Rue Victor Hugo: Rive d'Or (The Golden Shore)

Colin and I couldn't actually tell that anything was supposed to be there while we were walking down the street. We didn't even see lights that weren't turned on.

Stop #4: Rue de Passy: Au Firmament de Passy (The Heavens of Passy)

There were several scaffold towers with projectors on them, but none of them were working. Had they been lit up, we understand that they would have projected stars on the buildings. So, it might have been slightly more impressive than stop number one. I had more fun looking in the store windows on the street.

By this point, Didge's tail was dragging and Colin and I were thoroughly baffled. "Maybe the lights don't start until next week?" we speculated. "Maybe they turn everything off at 8 pm?" We were at a loss for ideas, so we got back on the métro and went home.

Colin checked the website's details again, and we can find no explanation for our major disappointment. In fact, the only thing that we got out of the evening (other than a new blister on my left foot) was a worn-out dog. But, if Charles Schultz is correct that "Happiness is a warm puppy," then pure happiness is asleep on my pillow right now.

08 December 2005

Tripe vs. La Grande Arche

I dragged Colin over to La Défense with me this afternoon under the guise that we would get to eat bratwurst for lunch. As you may recall from yesterday, there was a giant grill at the Christmas fair that Rachel and I explored, and the smell was amazing. I've been drooling over the memory ever since, so Colin and I decided that the lack of food in our kitchen at home was a sign that we deserved to eat out.

As it turns out, the vendor didn't sell bratwurst. She had hot dogs, andouillettes, and various kinds of saucissons (sausages) instead. No matter, though. Everything looked and smelled great, so we were happy to indulge. We both got the "assiettes" (plates) that came with fries, onions, and our choice of a meat product. Colin and I both got andouillettes. Unfortunately, the meal ended up being much more expensive than we expected: 25 euros for everything in the photo, plus drinks. (This is why we don't eat out much anymore!!)

Once I finished devouring my andouillette, Colin asked me if I knew what it was. I assumed that it was just like andouille (the sausage that you put in gumbo) except that it was smaller (hence the -ette ending, like tartelette). With a mischievous gleam in his eye, Colin gleefully informed me that no, in fact, what we had eaten was a type of tripe. What does that mean, you ask?

I had just eaten pig entrails.

Well, you know what? It was yummy!

Now, had you told me this morning that I would come home preferring tripe to the view from the top of La Grande Arche, I probably wouldn't have believed you. While I have recently begun to think that I'm not fond of the unoriginal squareness of La Grande Arche, I certainly wouldn't have ranked it below guts stuffed into an intestinal tube.

As it turns out, the view from La Grande Arche is less than spectacular. You can't really see much of Paris because the other tall, modern buildings of La Défense are blocking the view. Further, you can't walk all the way around and see the suburbs of Paris. For 7 euros 50 a piece, I can confidently say that it's not worth your money.

Here's a picture of the view, so that you can see what I'm talking about. You can also see video from the top that Colin and I shot -- I posted it to my Youtube site (the link is in the right hand bar of this blog).

Since there are a lot of things that you can climb in Paris, I've recently been mulling over which ones are the best. A good list crystalized in my head today, so here are my recommendations:

If you only have enough time and/or money to go up to the top of one thing, I recommend the very top of the Eiffel Tower at night. I think it's worth the extra money to go to the top, as opposed to just the second level. You can see everything and walk all the way around the circle to get every possible angle. Plus, the ticket to the top gives you access to the other two levels, so you won't miss anything by starting at the top. The other bonus of the Eiffel Tower is that they have large photos under every window that tell you which buildings are which. This is really handy if you don't know the city very well - if you see something and think, "Wow, what is that?" you can just look down at the photo and check the key. As a final bonus to the Eiffel Tower, you ride elevators the entire way, so it's much more accessible to people with any kind of physical impairments that would make climbing stairs difficult. Other bonuses to going at night: fewer tourists, and the tower "sparkles" at the top of every hour by setting off strobe lights that are mounted all over it.

Of course, the drawback to going up at night is that you can't get good pictures of the city without a really good camera and some professional knowledge. So, if you can't spend any more money and/or you have physical limitations, I recommend going to the top of Montmartre, the hill that Sacre Coeur sits on. The stair climb is free (good for the budget-conscious), and there is a funiculaire (an elevator or a tram) for people with physical limitations. The view is spectacular - you can see everything, including the Eiffel Tower, which you can't take pictures of when you're on it! If you have extra money, you can climb the stairs to the top of the tower in Sacre Coeur. I enjoyed it immensely, but if you have limited time/money, the view from outside the church is enough. Plus, the walkway at the top of the tower is fairly narrow, so you're likely to feel crowded if there are a lot of tourists.

In terms of climbing stairs, I think that L'Arc de Triomphe wins the "most worth the climb" award. Unlike Sacre Coeur or even Notre Dame, there is a lot of room for people to move around on the top of L'Arc de Triomphe. Plus, Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame don't have a map to show you which buildings are which while you're up there. L'Arc de Triomphe has one, though it's not quite as good as the Eiffel Tower's because only two to three people can look at it at one time. Still, it's nice to have the map to know what you're seeing. By the way, I think that there is an elevator that will get you part of the way up L'Arc de Triomphe, but I can't say for sure because it wasn't working when I was there. The one drawback once you reach the top is that you still have to get up on a really tall step to get the best view. (If you have physical limitations, make sure you have someone who can help you step up, or it's not worth it. Once you get up on the step, you can walk all the way around on the top of it. You can see video of the step on my Youtube site.) OH -- don't forget that there is an underground tunnel at the easternmost end of the Champs-Elysées to get to this site! There's no need to risk your life running through eight lanes of swirling traffic.

If you can't afford the 8 euro ticket or you can't physically climb L'Arc de Triomphe, you can get nearly the same impressive view from the top of Printemps Maison (the household branch of the big department store). There aren't any maps to show you what you're looking at, but you can ride escalators all the way up and stay as long as you like for free!

If money, time, and physical impairments aren't an issue, I also highly recommend climbing the tower at Notre Dame for the gargoyles. The view from the very top isn't nearly as good as the ones I have already mentioned (though it beats La Grande Arche), and the walkway is really, really narrow up there. Climbing this spiral staircase is mainly worth the effort (and dizzyness) to see the gargoyles, though the view from the middle of the church is quite lovely, too.

One caveat to this list: I have not yet been to the top of La Tour Montparnasse, so I don't know if the view is any better and/or cheaper. I'll check that out and give an update later. It is the highest point in Paris, so it might offer a worthwhile view. Plus, it has the advantage of not giving you a view of La Tour Montparnasse, since you're on it! (It's kind of an ugly duckling among swans in Paris, since it's a modern skyscraper sticking out from everything else. At least La Grande Arche has other tall, modern buildings near it to help it blend in.)

In the end, I've decided that I just don't like La Grande Arche. Yes, it is an amazing architectural feat, i.e. it's really big and bold. But, it just doesn't have the grace and style of the Eiffel Tower, or the historic charm of L'Arc de Triomphe. I still think that La Défense, in general, is a neat place to visit if you have enough time. It provides an interesting contrast to the old city of Paris, and it's got a big centre commercial (shopping mall) for those of us who enjoy a good day of material consumerism. If nothing else, there is a 12-meter-tall sculpture there that sums up my opinion of the city quite well. (If you don't believe me on the height of this sculpture, notice that Colin is standing next to it on the right.)

I give Paris a huge thumbs up!

UPDATE: I have been to the top of La Tour Montparnasse now, and highly recommend it. Here is a link to my updated list of "The Best Climbs of Paris."